Twins Diary

September 30: The Twins put on such a lifeless performance against Houston that I am surprisingly unemotional about their premature (based on their seeding) exit from the playoffs. In fact, I saw more life in Cleveland’s first three batters tonight against the Yankees, before rain halted play, than I did in 18 innings of at-bats for the Twins, a stretch I could probably extend to the final game of their regular season. It’s not just that the Twins, whose offense lives on home runs, didn’t hit any (in fact, they hadn’t hit any since September 23!), they only hit two balls reasonably hard all game: a double to the wall by Cruz, and a line drive single by Alex Kiriloff. Their third and only other hit was a ground ball by Gonzalez that Altuve fielded in short right. The Astros’ pitching staff, not considered one of the best, exposed gaping holes in the Twins lineup. In two games the Twins used four catchers, and the best they could produce was Astudillo’s game-ending double-play grounder. In Game 1, Buxton hit a looping single, then struck out three times. Cruz’s double–he produced the Twins’ only run each day–was their only other hit in the first game until two meaningless singles by Polanco and Sano in the bottom of the 9th, behind 4-1. To repeat: two doubles and five singles in two games was the extent of their offense.

The pitching faltered, but it didn’t fail, unlike the offense. Both Maeda and Berrios pitched well enough to win, if they had been given run support. Trevor May was the only reliever who escaped unscathed, although the defense contributed to most of the problems the others experienced. When you go into the 9th inning tied 1-1, then trailing 2-1, it’s hard to say the pitchers haven’t done their jobs. The defense and special teams, however, flopped. In Game 1 Houston scored its first run after Gonzalez failed to handle a ground ball to his left and then broke the game open with three runs in the 9th after Polanco’s casual flip to second pulled Arraez off the base. Defensive positioning, my pet peeve, also hurt. Houston got its lone run off Berrios on a routine ground ball to shortstop, when the shortstop wasn’t there. Similarly, a ground ball off Rogers that would have been an out without the shift was followed by a ground ball that would have been caught if the infield hadn’t been drawn in. In fairness, a drawn-in infield probably prevented another run in the 9th; but by my calculation the Twins were 1-for-4 on their defensive shifts. And in a tragicomic baserunning note, Buxton was inserted in Game 2 to pinch-run after Cruz walked and was picked off first.

A final word on the broadcast by ABC/ESPN. I understand that with eight series running simultaneously, the pool of announcers is stretched thin. That said, Karl Ravech, Tim Kurkjian and Eduardo Perez have to be one of the top teams. They never exhibited more than a passing knowledge of the Twins, mispronouncing names (Stashak), seemingly unaware of Jake Cave’s role on the team and constantly inflating the value of  the absent Josh Donaldson. At least I didn’t have to hear what surely would have been the deep disappointment in Dick Bremer’s voice as the Minnesotans fell flat.

September 27: It’s perhaps unfair to be down on the Twins, who played poorly today but still finished with the second-best record in the American League and will open the playoffs at home against Houston on Tuesday. Nevertheless, it’s hard to think of a position player who hasn’t regressed from his performance in 2019. Polanco, Kepler and Gonzalez all saw their batting averages plummet. Sano was a strikeout machine who looked helpless, unless the pitcher made a mistake. What can you say about Donaldson, the worst free-agent signing in Twins history? Rosario was his streaky self, occasionally rising to the occasion, more often sinking. Buxton did improve offensively, if not on defense, but if his goal was to stay healthy, he failed. Cruz was the exception for two-thirds of the season, but something went wrong and he was impotent the last twenty games, making we wonder if the Twins should re-sign him at 41. Mitch Garver, who hit 30 home runs last year, hit 2 and batted .167. Cave and Adrianza, the regular subs, combined to hit .208. The Strib today compared the offensive stats from last year: in 2019 the Twins were 1st to 3rd in almost every category; this year they were, at best, 18th. This lack of offense didn’t keep them from winning their division (mainly because the White Sox collapsed), but it made watching them much less fun. They scored a higher percentage of their runs on home runs, which was fun so far as that went; but when they weren’t hitting them there wasn’t much to get excited about. Oh, I forgot to mention Luis Arraez: for much of the year his average was way below his standard, and then he, too, was hurt. With six hits in the final weekend, he pulled up impressively to .321, so props to him.

What won the division for the Twins this year was their pitching, and in Kenta Maeda, whom they stole from the Dodgers (not that the Dodgers needed him) they have their first true ace since Johan Santana. I feel good about their first-game chances against the Astros with him on the mound. Beyond Maeda there is competence: on any given day, you could see a gem from Berrios, Hill, Pineda, Odorizzi or, earlier in the season, Dobnak. The relievers were also good, although not much better than the relief corps of many other teams. This last week we’ve sorted out whom can be relied upon in the playoffs: Duffey, May and perhaps Stashak. Rogers, Romo and Clippard have all shown chinks, although Baldelli will still use them. Thielbar and Wisler have been surprisingly useful; will their inexperience come into play in the postseason? Unfortunately, there is no lock-down closer, a real liability in a three-game showdown.

The Twins backed into their division win, losing two of three at home to the Reds, so there is no momentum in their favor – or for the Astros, either. I won’t be disappointed if they lose in the playoffs, although I do hope they will win Tuesday, to break their 16-game playoff losing streak. I will enjoy watching the White Sox and Cleveland, as they progress, and I have every hope of the Yankees’ being eliminated at the outset. Bring on the postseason!

September 25 : The Bad Twins were back tonight, with a vengeance. They lost the game in the 1st inning when they loaded the bases with one out (the out, thanks to Donaldson, per usual) and we watched Buxton and Sano both strike out, Buxton flailing at a pitch outside the strike zone and Sano whiffing on everything. Berrios, the purported ace, was again mediocre, with his ERA mounting to 4.00. Cruz continued his month-long slump and Garver continued his season-long one. Fourteen strikeouts against the bottom of the Reds’ rotation. Things can continue spiraling downward, or the Twins can somehow regroup. We’ll see.

September 24: I watched the Blue Jays clinch a playoff spot – by beating the Yankees! – and heard the Toronto announcers talk of how the team had “come together,” and they were winning, and enjoying their success, “as a team.” The Twins, too, seem to be approaching that state, just in time for the playoffs. Josh Donaldson bought capes for his teammates, and they have adopted the ‘homer cape’ as a dugout ritual. Young guys having fun! When your offense is built around solo home runs, there is less camaraderie than when guys are driving each other in. We are now set for a fascinating, perhaps excruciating, final weekend: the Twins play three against the Cincinnati Reds, an unknown quantity, with the White Sox one behind, Cleveland two back and the Yankees lurking. Because of the playoff seeding oddities, the Twins could wind up almost anywhere. What fun!

September 22: This was perhaps my favorite Twins win of the season: they took an early lead, fell behind twice and each time tied the game with a solo homer. In the first extra inning Taylor Rogers, as usual, gave up a run, but the Twins scored two with an actual rally: a single, stolen base!, and another single. Plus, there seems to be some life in the dugout.

September 19: A second home run by Donaldson makes me wonder: is he just now “rounding into shape”? And will he be a weapon in the Playoffs, to which the Twins punched their ticket with an 8-1 win over the Cubs. And there was actually a rally – five runs in the seventh with only one, leadoff, home run. On the flip side, Rosario had two big hits but was casually picked  off first base again, and Polanco – no longer the hitting machine he once was – was dropped toward the bottom of the lineup.

September 17: With Buxton hitting two homers, the rarely helpful Donaldson adding one and our ace Maeda on the mound, the Twins should have, and could have, won tonight in the crucial series finale with Chicago–their last, best chance to win the division and secure home field advantage for the first round of the playoffs–but I don’t begrudge the White Sox their 4-3 win. They are the spunkier team, the only one capable of a late-inning comeback, with the league’s most fearsome hitter, Jose Abreu, and probable batting champion, Tim Anderson. The game turned on a routine ground ball to shortstop that the hustling Abreu beat out, probably because Donaldson didn’t cut it off, having been ejected an inning earlier for showing up the home plate umpire after his home run. Ah, well…

September 15: The White Sox lineup features six (6) players hitting over .300. The Twins have one (1) player hitting above .280, and he (Nelson Cruz) is slumping. The mismatch is apparent, even when the Sox have a very average pitcher on the mound, as they did tonight. My two managerial pet peeves showed up again: the Sox hit several routine ground balls that were hits because the Twins were in their pull shift, even when one of the hitters hit three straight balls to right against the shift the night before. Second, the Twins gave up a hit and a run by pulling their infield in with a man on third, which they do regardless of the inning or score. I must have seen them hurt this way seven times this year, as against once when it worked. Is Baldelli too much a slave to “the book,” or will he allow some instinct or experience to play a role here?

September 14: Based on tonight’s game, the White Sox are the better team, or at least the hotter team. What is more concerning for the rest of the season, though, is the failings of Nelson Cruz and Taylor Rogers, who for the first month were the Twins’ best hitter and pitcher, respectively. Cruz came to the plate with eleven men on base over the course of the game and drove in no one, striking out twice, to boot. For the last week he has looked fairly hopeless, swinging and missing at outside breaking balls as well as fast balls down the middle. Have opposing teams suddenly figured out how to pitch him, after more than 15 years in the big leagues, or are we watching him grow old, in baseball years, before our eyes?  Rogers was brought in in the 8th inning in a non-save situation–always risky–and proceeded to walk his first two batters and give up the two winning runs while recording only one out. His ERA is over 4.00, which is not good for a closer. No longer is he the Mr. Automatic he appeared to be last year and early this year. That’s a problem.

September 12: The Twins are starting to look like last year’s bunch, considering that Donaldson wasn’t here last year and is doing nothing this year. Kepler and Arraez on the IL means there’s no consistency for awhile.

Rosario continues to infuriate. Yes, he homered and leads the team, somehow, in rbis. On the debit side, after he singled to lead off an inning he was picked off first when he was two steps away, not paying attention and casually jumped back to the bag. After working another count to 3-2, I said he will swing at a bad pitch now. The ball was six inches outside, he swung and missed. More than any other batter, he decides before the pitch if he will swing. Sometimes it works, as when he hit his home run off the first pitch of his final at bat.

I’m delighted that Buxton has become more of a force at the plate – I still wish he would occasionally bunt – but he’s not living up to his reputation in the field. I’ve seen him drop two balls already he could have caught.

September 8: The Twins seem to have righted themselves, failing to sweep a doubleheader in St. Louis only due to an uncharacteristic loss of control by Randy Dobnak, a control pitcher. Berrios was better than before, and the home runs are coming. But what does it matter? It turns out the Twins have a 98% chance of making the playoffs at this point, and it doesn’t really matter whether they are seeded second or seventh. This partly explains why Baldelli is regularly resting regulars, trying different combinations and experimenting with his relief corps. It’s more like the preseason we didn’t have, giving tryouts to see who will make the postseason roster.

September 7: I didn’t watch today but was heartened to see that Jake Cave beat the shift with a bunt single, then came around to score. I hope Kepler, Polanco and some others were watching. Pineda justified my expectations for his return; now if the Twins can get Odorizzi back in form they will have a more than respectable rotation. On the Rosario front, he had the game’s biggest hit – a three-run double – but was caught 30′ short of third base on the play. Apparently his method of running the bases is to keep running until someone tags him.

September 6: Today’s two story lines were the improbable collapse of the Twins’ “A” lineup of relievers in a 10-8 fall-from-ahead loss to the Tigers. Rich Hill left after 5 innings with a normally safe 6-2 lead, only to see Trevor May, Tyler Duffy and Sergio Romo blow the lead and Devin Smeltzer put the game out of reach. Eight runs off four relievers in four innings is, one hopes, an aberration.  The other story was Eddie Rosario’s undisciplined play that had the Strib trollers calling for him to be traded before next year, if not sooner. He is famously undisciplined at the plate: he has, I think, the league’s highest average when hitting balls out of the strike zone, but he’s probably up there, as well, on strikeouts on such pitches. On the bases, he killed a rally by running through the third base coach’s stop sign, and he gave the Tigers an extra base in the outfield by not knowing that a ball off the wall was in play. Unfortunately, he also let a ball drop out of his glove over the fence for a home run. Even last year when he led the team in rbi’s  he had a remarkably low OPS. Truly a confusing quantity.

September 5: The Twins seem to have acquired a new identity, coincidentally or perhaps not with the return of Byron Buxton. They’ve won three tight games with Detroit, including two late-inning come-from-behind jobs, something they seemed incapable of before. Buxton isn’t a transcendent talent – yet – but he plays with a passion that ignites his teammates, and when he hit a game-winning ground ball to the shortstop, beating the throw with his speed, which is transcendent, the Twins most closely resembled the confident, united bunch that won 102 games last year.

August 31: I witnessed what I hope will be the nadir of the Twins season tonight: ahead 4-0 early, the Twins were outscored 8-1 by the White Sox the rest of the way and were outhit 10-5. Once the game entered the late innings, Twins announcer Dick Bremer sounded just as hopeless as I was, and he barely went through the motions in the bottom of the 9th. Max Kepler dropped a routine fly leading to three unearned runs in the top of the 9th, and struggling closer Tayler Rogers gave up a run-scoring single and double. When it was his turn to bat, Kepler lamely swung and missed at three pitches. The spark and effort was all with the visiting Chicagoans. Looking for a bright spot, the Twins are heralding the return of three injured regulars, Buxton, Donaldson and Garver–neglecting to mention that they were hitting .217, .182 and .154 before they went on the IL.

August 30: Like just about everybody on the Strib’s comment board, I’ve now written off the Twins. Of course, I did this multiple times last year and they came back despite me, so everything’s possible. Their five-game losing streak, which has dropped them from first place to third, behind both the White Sox and Indians, features a stunning consistency: a few runs early in the game, then they fall behind and make no effort to come back. Their offense is powered by solo home runs and not many hits. They strike out a lot and hit a lot of balls into the shift. The pitching is good enough to win games if the offense scored more than three runs, which it hasn’t been doing; but there is generally a mistake or two that lets the other team hit a game-turning home run.

Individually, all I see are disappointments: no one, with the large exception of Nelson Cruz, is playing as well as projected. Buxton, Garver and Donaldson, three anticipated cornerstones, are out of the picture. Rosario and Kepler are looking more and more like Bobby Kielty and Dustan Mohr: they just don’t seem able to rise to the level of reliable contributors that would justify their contracts. In fact, both have regressed. Luis Arraez was supposed to threaten .400 but can’t seem to get above .260. He makes solid contact more than anyone else, but just has enough power to reach the well-positioned outfielder. Sano has once again become a threat at the plate, as well as a danger in the field, but there are too many games in which he strikes out three times. Speaking of which, Cruz, despite carrying the load to this point, has suddenly become susceptible to the low, outside breaking ball, a tendency I’m sure other teams are noticing.

I wouldn’t mind losing quite so much if the Twins offense showed some life or wasn’t so predictable. They have to be last in the league in runs scored in the 6th-to-9th innings, and pretty far down in runs scored without a home run. It may be too much to ask to change their style of play at this point, but I would be more willing to suffer with them if they occasionally tried to hit to the opposite field or even bunted when faced with a shift. If things don’t improve, I’d love to see them sit some of the regulars and see what new, young blood – Kiriloff, Larcher, et al. – can do. Maybe it would at least light a fire. I like Jake Cave, but he’s had plenty of opportunity and is still hitting below .200. And it’s not like the Twins have been facing Gerrit Cole or Max Scherzer.

August 30: One minor point: when faced with a man on third in the early innings, Rocco Baldelli has invariably drawn in the infield, drawing questioning comments from Dick Bremer and the day’s analyst. Just as invariably, the batter has hit a ground ball or Texas Leaguer that would’ve been an out had the infield been playing at normal depth, but resulted in a run-scoring base hit because of this shift. If it happened once or twice, you could say, bad luck. But I’ve personally witnessed it five times so far this year–without seeing it pay off even once. Will this change?

August 25: Two sort of questions from last night’s interesting loss to the Indians. Max Kepler  on both 1-2 and 2-2 pitches, took a curve that just broke inside, to bring the count full. On 3-2  Bieber threw the same pitch, only this one bounced in the dirt and Kepler swung and missed. I suppose that when you’re behind in the count you more likely to expect the pitcher to nibble or waste a pitch; whereas when there are 3 balls you expect the pitcher to throw a strike and are accordingly geared up to swing. The other puzzle was Nelson Cruz, the Twins’ best hitter, striking out swinging three times on the same pitch, a breaking ball just off the plate. I don’t believe that in three plate appearances he even made contact once. This year players are not able to study video of their previous at bats – thanks to previous cheating scandals – which perhaps contributed to Cruz’s inability to learn from his past mistakes.

August 23. The Twins confirmed my previous entry by falling behind early, killing any interest I might have in the game. On the other hand, both this year and last they have displayed the remarkable ability, after slumping for two games, to come out hitting the next night, as if nothing happened.

August 19. The Twins, I’m afraid, don’t have a comeback bone in their body; so when they fell behind 4-1 in the 3rd inning I knew the cause was lost. I was right, and the final score of 9-3 only confirmed my analysis.

August 18. Got my first taste of the new extra-inning rule last night, and I approve. Under the old (still-existing?) rules, extra innings can be an eventless slog, exposing the dregs of a bullpen, thinning out the stands. Now, when each at-bat begins with a runner on second base, each pitch can be decisive. Furthermore, it brings strategy to the fore: bunt the runner to third and even squeeze him home, or give three batters the chance to hit a single? The two innings I watched last night contained a game’s worth of drama. Top of the 11th ended with a great defensive play by Jorge Polanco: two runners on, slow roller to short, barehand pickup and perfect throw to first. A split-second slower and it would have been bases loaded with rookie pitcher Jorge Alcala, with questionable control, on the mound. Bottom of 11: a grounder to first should have moved the runner to third, but the Brewers’ first baseman threw across the diamond to catch the runner going to third. A bad throw, but the third baseman corralled it and made the tag. Next up was Byron Buxton, who hit into a double play. Two batters, three outs. But by making the third out, Buxton would be the runner on 2nd in the 12th. But first, we had to get through the Brewers’ half-inning, with Alcala still pitching. The first Brewer singled to left, but the runner on 2d was Jedd Gyorko, a slugger, not a speedster. That’s why he didn’t beat out his grounder to short the inning before and why he was held at third. A popup later, Ryan Braun, who had singled, stole second uncontested. Why no contest? His steal eliminated the double-play possibility. And if there were another hit, his run would matter. The next Brewer hit a ball to right field, surely enough to score Gyorko from 3rd. But Kepler made an improbable diving catch and Gyorko, thinking the ball would fall, had failed to tag up. (Kepler’s throw home was so strong and accurate, he might have caught a running Gyorko anyway, we’ll never know.) The next batter struck out on a 3-2 pitch outside. The bottom of 12 started with speedster Buxton on 2nd. Bunt him over? Backup catcher Avila swings and misses at strike two. Then he breaks his bat and hits a slow roller to first, moving Buxton to third. Kepler battled to 3-2, then gets hit by a pitch a foot off the plate. Polanco comes to the plate and faces, as did Kepler, five Brewers carpeting the infield. On the second pitch he hit another broken-bat roller to second. Throw home, Buxton sweeps the plate with his gloved hand. Safe! Game over. Yes, the Twins didn’t hit a ball that even reached the infield dirt, but they won.

August 17. Sometimes things just work out. Baldelli brought in Clippard after Wisler and Smeltzer had gone 4-2/3 shutout innings, to make Merrifield face a third different pitcher in his third at bat. So much for that strategy: Merrifield lashed a ball off the left field fence, missing a home run by two feet. But then, Rosario plays the carom perfectly and fires a strike to second to cut down Merrifield and end the inning. With a 4-0 lead in the 9th, Baldelli figures he’ll give Littell some work. First batter, home run. Next, fly out. Third batter, single. One batter away from bringing up Merrifield as the tying run, and Littell has not gotten a pitch past anyone. Alex Gordon smokes a line drive, but the Twins’ second baseman is playing short rightfield, he cathces it – the shift working for once – and doubles the runner off first to end the game. Garver strikes out, hits into a doubleplay and sees his average drop below .150, while the day before Avila, in effect, scores three of the Twins’ four runs. How will this play out?

August 11. It’s early, I know, but a sinking feeling about the Twins is already sinking in. They hit a few home runs early then fall asleep at the plate, while the other team shows more life and comes back to beat them. This happened too often last year and is starting again. They were supposed to feed off bottom-place Kansas City and Milwaukee, but are so far 1-4 against them. Will a shake-up be in the offing?

August 9. Among the Twins’ early-season troubles, the performance of Mitch Garver is the most surprising. (I.e., no surprise that Sano is striking out at a 50% rate or that Berrios looks nothing like the ace the Twins pretend he is or that Rosario is hitting only occasionally, in streaks.) He has gone from hitting .273 last year to an abysmal .094 this year; his slugging percentage has dropped from a healthy .630 to an anemic .188. He looks lost at the plate and rarely even makes contact. As for his defense, Jack Morris spent the first two games he announced commenting that Garver’s stance behind the plate made it hard for him to block balls, while he simultaneously raved about Salvador Perez’s catching technique. Garver’s never been much at throwing out runners, and the Royals stole at will all series. The only solution I see is to get Willians Astudillo back from his Covid-induced absence. The Twins could use some of his spark, as well.

August 6. The karmic gods of baseball bit the Twins back: instead of intentionally walking a clutch-hitting pinch hitter with first base open, one out and a one-run lead in the 9th, Rocco Baldelli watched the Pirates’ Kevin Newman hit a chopper through the middle to win the game, the kind of hit that would likely have been a game-ending double play had there been a runner on first. I didn’t watch the game, so I’m second-guessing here. I am less concerned about Taylor Rogers losing the game than I am encouraged by home runs from Sano, Buxton and Rosario.

August 4. Twins beat the Pirates, 7-3, ho-hum. As good as the Twins are, I worry that what we are seeing is partly a lack of competition. And limiting their schedule to Central Division teams, several in rebuilding mode, means we may not know how good they really are until the playoffs, assuming MLB gets there.

August 3. Bonehead move of the year by a rookie manager: pitching to Nelson Cruz with first base open in a 4-4 tie in the ninth inning, with Miguel Sano on deck. The Twins were totally outplayed but came back from 4-0 with five walks and a wild pitch in one inning.

August 2. Miguel Sano is back to being a strikeout machine, seemingly in a contest with Byron Buxton for who can be the most frustrating “phenom” the longest. I was even about to chastise him for not wearing a mask in the dugout, until I remembered that he had actually had the coronovirus, so presumably is neither susceptible nor a carrier. We hope.

August 1. Just when I was ready to write Miguel Sano off for the year, he crushed two home runs to beat the “Indians,” 3-0. His play at first base remains an adventure – not a good one – but the home runs take care of that. Kenta Maeda looked as dominant as Rich Hill; what a lift they give to the Twins’ rotation.

July 30. While 14 Twins were striking out, including Donaldson, Rosario, Kepler and Garver on balls in the dirt and Sano appeared helpless as usual, Arraez made solid contact off former Gaucho Shane Bieber at least the three at bats I saw. Jim Souhan’s column echoed my constant thought that Berrios is only a purported ace, not a real one. His flat slider can be eminently hittable, and if hitters lay off it, he’s behind in the count.

July 29. Watching Rich Hill pitch is a pleasure. He’s comfortable, commanding and in control. The Twins bullpen looks potentially dominant, and Taylor Rogers is wow!

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